Greatness in the ordinary

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  • December 12, 2012

Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year C) Dec. 23 (Micah 5:2-5; Psalm 80; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45)

Human beings are usually attracted to the powerful, beautiful, talented and prestigious. God has a very different view — throughout the Bible God repeatedly chooses the youngest, smallest, weakest and most insignificant as His instruments.

The stories of Jacob and Esau, the calling of both Saul and David as kings of Israel, and the call of prophets such as Jeremiah are but a few examples of God’s predilection for the underdog. Micah was a prophet active in the later eighth century BC, just around the time of the Assyrian invasions and the fall of Israel in the north in 722 BC. He was sharply critical of injustice, corruption and the debasement of religion, and he prophesied that Judah in the south would suffer a similar fate. He yearned for the days of King David, and this prophecy called to mind the small and insignificant town of Bethlehem, David’s birthplace. His prophecy looked to the future when another from the same town and lineage would arise to cleanse, restore and protect the nation.

The psalmist’s plaintive cry of “Restore us, O God” was a constant refrain of the people of God. This was evident in subsequent centuries when this prophecy found new expression in similar circumstances such as the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BC. The prophecy remained a symbol of hope and inspiration, making a final appearance in Matthew 2:6. The visiting magi were told that the Saviour was born in Bethlehem as prophesied so long ago.

Even in the midst of chaos and struggle, hopeful symbols and inspiring narratives have always been passed on from generation to generation like a priceless heirloom. They do their work again and again, giving people the courage and hope to try again and to move on. Hope seems to be a rare commodity today for we have squandered our inheritance and pawned our heirlooms through the persistent practise of cynicism, materialistic thinking and fear. It would be helpful for us to revisit these prophecies and apply them to our own time — after all, God has not changed and God is always faithful. Perhaps we will have a legacy of hope and inspiration to pass on to future generations.

God is not impressed with human attempts at manipulation and control. Often forms of religious expression such as sacrifices, offerings, liturgies and rituals can be attempts to do just that. They can give people the illusion of pleasing God while the demands of the ego and the shadowy side of human nature remain untouched. In the Letter to the Hebrews the admonitions of the Old Testament prophets were coupled with a new vision of the final sacrifice of Jesus Christ. True sacrifice was described as the willingness to do the will of God rather than one’s own even when the cost is heavy. The relinquishing of the self in favour of doing God’s will and serving others is the only sacrifice truly pleasing to God.

In Luke’s story of the nativity of Jesus, the openness of so many individuals to the will of God is striking. Zechariah, Simeon, Anna, the shepherds and Elizabeth all seemed to be waiting expectantly for any sign that God was on the move. They were willing to do anything to hasten the completion of God’s plan. These people were not important by earthly standards; indeed, some lived at the fringes of society — and yet their role in the great unfolding event was crucial. There was a complete lack of competition or self-seeking. They were able to rejoice in one another and the roles each was called to play. Mary had no power, reputation, influence or wealth to commend her to human eyes, but continuing the ancient biblical theme of the last shall be first she was called to bear the Saviour of the world. Of the entire array of holy individuals in Luke’s birth narrative, Mary embodied openness to God and harmony with the divine will in the highest degree.

The greatest things are accomplished not through the machinations and plans of humans, for these are usually tinged with human weakness and selfishness. They occur when ordinary people put aside self and open their hearts and minds to the will of God. God continues to work through such individuals to this very day.

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